Cosmic Radiation May Not Endanger Space Travelers as Much as Expected

First Posted: Dec 03, 2014 11:37 AM EST

Space travel may actually be a bit safer than expected. Scientists have conducted an analysis of data from the MATROSHKA experiment, the first comprehensive measurements of long-term exposure of astronauts to cosmic radiation, and have found that the cosmos may be less hostile to space travelers.

When it comes to life-threatening hazards in space, cosmic radiation poses a significant threat. Ionizing radiation can affect astronaut health over time, which limits the amount of time that humans can remain within the cosmos. As plans for longer-term space missions move forward, it's crucial to assess exactly how much radiation astronauts are exposed to.

In order to find this out, researchers designed and carried out the MATROSHKA experiment. A dummy closely mimicking the human body was fitted with several thousand detectors. These detectors recorded the doses from cosmic radiation inside the International Space Station and outside, in open space, over the course of several years.

"One may say that we found open space to be a bit less hostile to humans than expected," said Pawel Bilski, one of the researchers, in a news release. "The effective doses, related to the health risk of the astronauts and calculated from measurements with our detectors, were lower than those indicated by dosimeters worn by the astronauts."

The main hazard of cosmic radiation is the possibility that it may cause an astronaut to develop cancer. This probability, though, is dependent on the type of radiation that the astronaut is exposed to. Most of the natural sources of ionizing radiation on Earth product electromagnetic radiation of high energy-gamma rays. In cosmic rays, energetic protons or heavier ions dominate, which are more effective at creating cancer cells.

In the end, the researchers found that they overestimated dosage measured inside the ISS by 15 percent. More surprising, though, were the results from outside. The dummy revealed that they had overestimated dosage by 200 percent.

The findings reveal a bit more about the doses of cosmic radiation. That said, the scientists are quick to note that the experiment was performed at low Earth orbit, so there could be more of a radiation hazard elsewhere.

The findings are published in the journal Radiation and Environment Biophysics.

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